With Which I Am Well Pleased (Redux)

While our State of residence is opening up prematurely and irresponsibly, Marcia and I are still doing our part to protect ourselves and others through smart adherence to science-based guidance on social distancing and personal protection. So that means we’re spending a lot of time at home, still, even as we have diligently worked through our dire local climate to get good, healthy walks in every day, usually way out in the countryside away from the selfish, oblivious idiots who are bumbling around our neighborhood as though COVID-19 were a thing of the past already. We’re not exactly experiencing the sabbatical year that we had planned for 2020, but we have our health and we have each other and we have a variety of things, both mundane and meaningful, that are filling the hours and satisfying our souls. At the risk of repeating a titular heresy, I revisit my earlier With Which I Am Well Pleased post for a peek at 15 other specific things that have been keeping me entertained over the past month or so. Maybe you’ll be easily amused by them too.

TELEVISION SHOWS

MOVIES

MUSIC

BOOKS

OTHER

With Which I Am Well Pleased

I ended my prior post with the words titling this one. It’s a phrase I often use in written pieces, and one that we as a family often say around our household. I must confess that there’s a spot of respectful blasphemy in using it as often as I do, since the quote is actually culled from a piece of New Testament Scripture, within the story of Jesus’ baptism by John:

And when Jesus was baptized, he went up immediately from the water, and behold, the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and alighting on him; and lo, a voice from heaven, saying, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3: 16-17 RSV)

Having been raised in a strong scripture teaching tradition, I know there are other bits and bobs of the Bible that dot my speech and writing in odd ways. Those words are deeply ingrained in my mental filing cabinets, easily drawn forth when certain points and positions require comment or exposition, usually completely unrelated to their original occurrence or intention.

“With which I am well pleased” seems particularly resonant right now, since there are so many things that so many of us find displeasing, from the minor nits associated with confinement, to the macro unraveling of the global economy, hyper-partisan politics, and the ever-rising infection and mortality figures that frame and define the news cycle, hour after hour, day after day. So at the risk of further damning myself through misuse of scripture, today I share 15 odds and ends in a quintet of categories that have brightened my days of late, in the hopes that you, too, may find yourself well pleased with them.

And, of course, on the “with whom I am well pleased” question through Life During Quarantine Time, that answer should be quite obvious . . .

(Note: All the images are linked to relevant pages, if you wish to explore further).

TELEVISION

MOVIES

MUSIC

BOOKS

OTHER

Best of the Archives #11: Trio dans le Studio

THE ARCHIVAL ARTICLE:

TRIO DANS LE STUDIO: ANN MASON STOCKTON, CATHERINE GOTTHOFFER AND DOROTHY REMSEN ON THE HARP IN FILM (1999)

THE BACKGROUND STORY:

As I noted in the background story to my Kim Deal piece, the normal rubric for a musician interview in most print or online publications revolves around the writer asking a fairly short set of questions via phone of a trending artist who either has a new album out or is playing in town soon, then boiling those brief remarks down into a promotional piece. The writer recognizes that the artist will likely have already been asked the same questions many times already by other writers, meaning that their answers may be rote and ossified through repetition, thus limiting the unique value and depth of the articles that emerge from this type of mass-production process, especially given the fact that today’s hot commodity musician may be a passing fancy of little interest to future readers and listeners.

As I also noted in the Kim Deal piece, being an interesting musician does not necessarily correlate with an ability to say interesting things about anything interesting, so a lot of those going-through-the-motions interviews are dull to write and dull to read. It’s therefore a treat when a writer is given the opportunity to speak with artists of vast proven accomplishment, and those artists have insightful and interesting perspective about interesting things, and the writer is given the column space to do justice to the story. Today’s archival article is, for me, the finest personal example I have of such a fortuitous alignment of story elements.

I wrote the piece for The American Harp Journal, the long-running periodical of The American Harp Association. It is a group interview of three of the most prominent and beloved film studio harpists of the 20th Century: Ann Mason Stockton, Catherine Gotthoffer, and Dorothy Remsen. If you have a favorite big studio movie from about the 1940s to the 1990s, and you hear a harp in its score, the odds are high that one of them played it.

I chanced upon this writing opportunity after I had engaged Albany-based harpist Elizabeth Meriweather Huntley for an event in one of my other professional positions. She was a wonderful player, and I had multiple opportunities to appreciate and recommend her work during my time in Albany. As it turned out, Elizabeth was also the editor of The American Harp Journal, and as we chatted about things at some event or another, and my music critic work for the regional newsweekly came up in conversation, she told me I might be able to help her with a project.

Stockton, Gotthoffer and Remsen were getting on in years, and the Harp Society wanted to capture, preserve and share some of their history and memories while they were still able and available to share them. Music historian Russell Wapensky (a great authority on California music-making and Musicians’ Local 47, including some epic research and preservation efforts on the Wrecking Crew’s and Beach Boys’ myriad sessions) was attached to the project, and he conducted and filmed a three-hour interview with the three harpists, aided by Remsen’s husband.

I was then given copies of those raw interview tapes and assigned the task of transcribing them and compiling their contents into a readable standalone article. This wasn’t my normal working approach, at all, but it was a very enjoyable undertaking, and I found the three harpists to be delightful long-distance companions as I listened to their stories and studied their lives and work.

It was fascinating to gain insight and perspective into just what attracted prospective musicians to chose such an unwieldy and expensive instrument, and the group psychologies and tics of those who did so and then stuck with it for decades. It was also amazing to get some first-hand perspective about some great artists of the 20th Century before their greatness had been widely recognized. Ann Mason Stockton played on some of Frank Sinatra’s very first recordings, for example, and she knew he was special, even then.

All three of the harpists featured in the story have passed away since this article was published, so I do hope that it served its purpose as a valuable remembrance of them, and a useful long-term research resource for the American Harp Association. They were delightful subjects and great artists, and I’m glad to have been given the gift of sharing their stories.

Ann Mason Stockton (1916-2006)

Movie Buff: My 50 Favorite Films

Right before our ever-more living through interesting times trip to Tampa Bay, Marcia and I watched Bob Fosse’s 1979 film All The Jazz. She had watched the Fosse/Verdon miniseries without me, then watched Cabaret on Netflix while I was traveling. She expressed an interest in seeing Fosse’s autobiographical Jazz as well, since it covers aspects and elements of the story told in the miniseries, only lightly fictionalized (with a few crucial, shocking exceptions). I have long cited All That Jazz as one of my favorite films, so I was perfectly happy to order the Criterion Collection Blu-Ray edition of it for us to watch, since it was not available to stream. Bring on the popcorn!

This was, oh, I dunno, probably the fourth or fifth time I’ve watched that film since its release. My regard for it grows with each viewing, and that was affirmed again this time around. I believe it is Fosse’s greatest masterpiece, and one of the finest films ever made. It’s really rare that I ever want to watch movies more than once, even ones I like, so when one moves me enough to consider multiple repeat screenings, that cements its favorite status in my heart and mind. That’s especially true in Jazz‘s case, with its musical structure and Broadway-style set pieces, given that I usually hate those in movies, just on principal. It takes a lot to overcome my general revulsion toward that form.

Of course, me being me, and me also looking at a lot of unexpected hunkering down time to watch movies over the weeks ahead, after watching All That Jazz, I got to thinking about what other films I’d rank as my all-time favorites, and be willing to watch again. And again. I’ve done that sort of life-time list with albums on here for years, but when it comes to films, while I’ve occasionally plonked some off-the-cuff “Top Ten Movie” ideas down here, or done some time-specific lists as decades roll to a close, I’ve never really sat down to think about my All-Time Best of the Best Film List in any meaningful way.

So while we were in Florida, I went back through all of my various old small lists and made one big list out of them. And then I edited it to a nice round number — fifty — and I decided that for the purposes of this list, I’d not include  documentaries; I might need to give them their own list at some point. I tried to stick to the things that I really, really love, and that I personally believe to be true masterpieces, and not to start off the way that so many lists of this ilk do, with the “usual suspect” entries that critics are obliged to cite.

You know the ones: Citizen Kane, Casablanca, The Godfather, Battleship Potemkin, 8 1/2, Breathless, etc.  All fine, important films, of course, but none of them move me as deeply on a personal basis as the ones I put on my own list. On the flip-side of that rubric, I also tried to apply some reasonable objective quality filters to knock things off the list like, say, John Boorman’s Zardoz or George Roy Hill’s Slap Shot, both of which I’ve also seen numerous times and which always tickle me to pieces, but which I know are just not great films, as much as I want them to be so.

I was not particularly surprised when I came up with my final 50 to see that almost all of the films were made in my lifetime. Things with relevance and current release energy that I first experienced when they were relatively fresh are more likely to move me deeply than things from earlier eras. I mean, I’ve read and been told so many times how to process and respond to Citizen Kane that I don’t really quite know what my real personal feelings are about it any more. (I suspect this is true for most folks, though I also suspect that few critics would admit it). While Kane may truly have changed the way we view and make cinema, I’m of the era that was raised on its followers, such that many of its then-revolutionary aspects look, feel and sound tame (and dull) to me, and I can’t remove the lenses through which I view it and others of its venerable stature.

But sitting through Ari Aster’s Midsommar last year? Blammo! My Head A Splode! And I thought about that flick for a long time after it was over, the feelings it created were deep and powerful, its artistry and acting were sublime, and I didn’t need anybody to tell me what I should think about it, and why it mattered. It was objectively great and subjectively a favorite, for sure, in it’s own damn right. Onto the list with you! Huttah!

Okay, with all of that as (long) preamble, I present my Top 50 Film List below, in chronological order (oldest to newest) by United States’ premier dates. Title, release year, and director noted for each one. I wish the directors’ roster wasn’t as much of a white boys sausage party as it is, but that’s what’s been mostly put before me for most of my lifetime by the film-making powers that be, so it reflects that, alas. That said, I am very, very glad to see that dynamic (slowly) changing, bit by bit, year by year, no matter how white and paternalistic Oscar apparently continues to want to be, damn him and his enablers.

I don’t know how many of these are available for streaming, or even on Blu-Ray for some of the obscurities, but I’ll keep the list handy near the TV Command Station in the weeks ahead, and see what we see. Let me know if you’re moved to watch any of these on your own, and what you think/thought if you do. Always happy to discuss great flicks!

    1. The Great Dictator (1940, Charlie Chaplin)
    2. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964, Stanley Kubrick)
    3. Seconds (1966, John Frankenheimer)
    4. Cool Hand Luke (1967, Stuart Rosenberg)
    5. The Graduate (1967, Mike Nichols)
    6. 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968, Stanley Kubrick)
    7. Petulia (1968, Richard Lester)
    8. A Clockwork Orange (1971, Stanley Kubrick)
    9. Walkabout (1971, Nicolas Roeg)
    10. Aguirre, The Wrath of God (1972, Werner Herzog)
    11. Deliverance (1972, John Boorman)
    12. The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972, Luis Buñuel)
    13. Don’t Look Now (1973, Nicolas Roeg)
    14. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975, Miloš Forman)
    15. Taxi Driver (1976, Martin Scorsese)
    16. The Man Who Fell To Earth (1976, Nicolas Roeg)
    17. Network (1976, Sidney Lumet)
    18. Eraserhead (1977, David Lynch)
    19. The Last Wave (1977, Peter Weir)
    20. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978, Philip Kaufman)
    21. All That Jazz (1979, Bob Fosse)
    22. Time Bandits (1981, Terry Gilliam)
    23. Blade Runner (1982, Ridley Scott)
    24. Liquid Sky (1982, Slava Tsukerman)
    25. Brazil (1985, Terry Gilliam)
    26. A Zed & Two Noughts (1985, Peter Greenaway)
    27. The Princess Bride (1987, Rob Reiner)
    28. The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover (1989, Peter Greenaway)
    29. Do the Right Thing (1989, Spike Lee)
    30. The Piano (1993, Jane Campion)
    31. What’s Eating Gilbert Grape (1993, Lasse Hallström)
    32. Dead Man (1995, Jim Jarmusch)
    33. Mulholland Dr. (2001, David Lynch)
    34. Lost in Translation (2003, Sofia Coppola)
    35. The Fountain (2006, Darren Aronofsky)
    36. WALL-E (2008, Andrew Stanton)
    37. Up (2009, Pete Docter)
    38. Black Swan (2010, Darren Aronofsky)
    39. Melancholia (2011, Lars von Trier)
    40. Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012, Benh Zeitlin)
    41. Moonrise Kingdom (2012, Wes Anderson)
    42. A Field in England 2013, Ben Wheatley)
    43. Under the Skin (2013, Jonathan Glazer)
    44. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014, Wes Anderson)
    45. Inside Out (2015, Pete Docter)
    46. The Witch (2015, Robert Eggers)
    47. Moonlight (2016, Barry Jenkins)
    48. A Ghost Story (2017, David Lowery)
    49. mother! (2017, Darren Aronofsky)
    50. Midsommar (2019, Ari Aster)

 

It’s showtime, folks!

Screening the Teens: The 25 Best Films of 2010-2019

UPDATE NOTE: Click here for a 2020 update of my 50 All-Time Favorite Films.

Marcia and I watched The Lighthouse this weekend. A harrowing flick with innovative visuals and cinematography, and good enough for me to update the “Best Movies” section at my 2019: Year In Review page to include it there. As I was doing that, I noticed my Best Albums of 2010-2019 article nearby (virtually speaking), and, well, if you know me and/or been here more than a couple of times, then you probably know where the combination platter of those two threads led me.

Being a chronic list-maker, I already had a large amount of information on what films I’d seen and liked over the past decade here at the website, so I started by combining and culling those annual lists, then went to look at several other critical websites for their own best of the year (each year) or decade-in-review pieces. There weren’t many films disclosed throughout that review process that I wanted to see that I hadn’t seen, so that was nice to affirm; living in Chicago within walking distance of several movie theaters certainly was conducive to keeping abreast of current cinematic offerings, alongside the emergence of streaming services over the decade.

With those resources, it didn’t take me very long to develop a first-draft list of my 25 Best Films of the decade, and as I mulled it over the past couple of days, making some drops and adds, it finally started to seem like a good list to share. I will note, though, that as I look at the list and the pool from which it was drawn, I think it’s a list of good films from a decade that history will judge to be a wan era in cinematic history, critically, if not commercially. The blockbusters of the decade are almost all comic book franchises, sequels, reboots, or movies inspired by toys, games, theme-park rides or other infantile sources. The roster of Academy Award Best Pictures includes plentiful “What were they thinking?!?” winners like Argo, The Artist, Birdman, Spotlight, The Shape of Water and Green Book, mostly nice enough for a bucket of popcorn, sure, but none to these eyes and ears worthy of being dubbed best in their years of release, by long margins in most cases.

That said, I will note one other trend: my list definitely skews toward the latter half of the decade, and I think that’s a positive sign, as more unique, original, diverse films are seeing the light of day, and then finding audiences and attention beyond the tiny art house scene, than was the case at the start of the decade. I scrubbed my list fairly hard to make sure that this late decade skew wasn’t just an artifact of me better remembering more recently-seen films than those I saw a decade ago and forgot about, but going through all the data at my disposal, I do think it is a real trend, at least in terms of the types of films that I appreciate most.

As the list below will likely and quickly make clear, the movies that I hold in the highest regard tend to be original, technically sophisticated (beyond just slathering on layers of CGI), unique, and haunting, in both their real-time content and their lingering effects on my consciousness. There are scenes and performances in these films that took my breath away, and which I continue to remember and consider years after I first saw them. Their stories are all fresh, and their action and direction are truly creative, with nary a straight regurgitation nor a franchise feature among them. More of these, Hollywood! Please!

As always, I welcome your own thoughts, corrections, and additions in the comments. Is there something out there that I need to see? An amendment screaming to be made? Hit me, if so! I’m always open to having my mind blown unexpectedly.

THE 25 BEST FILMS OF 2010-2019 (IN ALPHABETICAL ORDER)

1917 (2019)
Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
Black Swan (2010)
The Death of Stalin (2017)
The Favourite (2018)
A Field in England (2013)
The Florida Project (2017)
Frank (2014)
Get Out (2017)
A Ghost Story (2017)
The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
Inside Out (2015)
Jojo Rabbit (2019)
Lady Bird (2017)
The Lobster (2015)
Melancholia (2011)
Midsommar (2019)
Moonlight (2016)
Moonrise Kingdom (2012)
mother! (2017)
Parasite (2019)
Sorry to Bother You (2018)
Under the Skin (2013)
Us (2019)
The Witch (2015)

And if I had to pick the best of the best . . . which Oscar COMPLETELY ignored, ugh . . .

2019: Year in Review

Marcia and I are hitting the road tomorrow for New Mexico (where we’ll see out 2019, having welcomed it in Paris, France), so it seems a good time for my annual recap and summary of stuffs and things here as a final blog post from a big year, on a wide range of fronts for our family, most of them documented within these pages.

ON THE BLOG:

This is the 70th post on the blog this year, up from 41 in 2018, 35 in 2017, and 27 in 2016. A very positive trend (if not as many posts as I used to poop out annually a decade or so ago), and a good indicator that getting off of social media (a goal established in last December’s “Year in Review” post) was a good way to redirect time and energy to pursuits that I consider more rewarding. Traffic was up a solid 40% over the prior year as well, confirming once again that volume drives reads, as long as quality remains acceptable. As satisfying as that is, given my own goals for the year, I doubt that I will hit the same high post mark in 2020, as I plan to work on some projects for potential professional or commercial purposes, and don’t intend to share them until I know there’s not a market for them. But I do have a couple of new ideas for public writing for pleasure knocking around in my brain, so I may surprise myself.

I completed my planned Credidero writing project this week, an act of thinking out loud in public over the past year about a dozen concepts of interest, looking to see what beliefs might emerge from such active reflection and analysis. It was satisfying to click the final “publish” button, seeing that effort to fruition. Of course, I’m lousy at letting things go cleanly, so I will re-read and mull the entire project output soon, and write one last summarizing article in January, to assess themes or thoughts that emerge from between the lines for me.

As I report each year, here are the ten most-read articles among the 70 new posts here in 2019:

And then here are the ten posts written in prior years that received the most reads in 2019. It always fascinates me which of the 1,100+ articles on my website interest people (or search engines) the most, all these years on since the first 1995 post on an early version of this blog, long before any of us knew it was to be called a blog. (I exclude things like the “About Me” page or the generic front page from the list, even though they generate a lot of my traffic). Here’s hoping that people realize that the perpetually-popular “Iowa Pick-Up Lines” post is a joke . . .

ON THE WEB:

I begin my day, every day, reading two utterly brilliant sites: Thoughts On The Dead and Electoral Vote Dot Com. My deeper thoughts on the former are here, and on the latter, suffice to say they’re my main online source for hard political/electoral news and analysis at this point, and have been since the early ’90s. I will admit that it is hard, sometimes, to decide which one of the worlds they describe in glorious detail (the first a semi-fictional universe built around the exploits of a time-traveling Grateful Dead, the second an academically rigorous view of our Nation’s electoral processes) is the most absurd and unbelievable anymore. I definitely would prefer to live in Thoughts On The Dead’s universe some days when I read the reports on Electoral Vote Dot Com and cringe at the idiocy, if not outright evil, of our ruling class. Beyond that, I didn’t add any new crucial web sites to my roster of favorites this year (see the “Regular Reads” block in the right side-bar), which I suppose is another good indicator that I spent less time trawling and more time creating in 2019 than has been the case in recent years. Good on me.

TRAVEL:

As noted above, we greeted 2019 in Paris, France and will see it out in Albuquerque, New Mexico. We also celebrated our 30th anniversary in June with a great trip to Greece, and our first retirement trip was a jaunt to Spain. In the middle of all that, we consolidated our household in Des Moines, Iowa, after having split time between there and Chicago for three years. I traveled less for work in 2019 than I had in the four prior years (it’s harder to get anywhere from Des Moines than it is from Chicago), though I still got to enjoy my fifth Tour des Trees, this time in Kentucky and Tennessee. Next year the team will ride in Colorado, with Iowa as the target destination the year after that. I hope that health and schedule allow me to continue rolling with them, minus my management responsibilities. At bottom line, 2020 will be mainly about the travel that Marcia and I choose to do, not that we need to do. That will be refreshing. We have trips to Arizona, Ireland, Spain, Costa Rica and Iceland in the family’s conceptual hopper at this point, and we shall see what else the next year brings. Here’s my 2019 map, as a benchmark (with this week’s trip to New Mexico already penciled in):

RECORDINGS:

I’ve already posted my Most Played Songs of 2019 and Best Albums of 2019 reports, and consider 2019 to have been an outstanding music year.

LIVE PERFORMANCES AND ART EXHIBITIONS:

Alas, this is the one section of my annual report that’s ready for retirement, with us having left Chicago. We saw dozens of shows (of both types) each year when we were living just off of The Loop, and we’ve seen, well, close to none, since we moved back to Des Moines. The one concert that stands out was our final one as Chicago residents: King Crimson at Auditorium Theater, where we had front row seats to watch the Seven-Headed Beast work its magic. A wonderful and fitting chapter closer for four great years of concert-going and museum-strolling in a world-class cultural city.

BOOKS:

I set a goal to read more books in 2019. I did read more books in 2019, once again demonstrating the perfidy that Twitter and its ilk impose upon us as time sucks and soul wasters and dumb-down distractions. Here’s the list of my favorite nonfiction works, novels and short story collections of the year. I feel smarter having read them.

FILMS:

We’ve seen a lot of movies this year, many of them quite good. (We’re pretty astute at just not going to see things that we think are not going to appeal to us, so I don’t often get exposed to garbage). Here’s my Top 15 of the year, thus far, in alphabetical order:

  • A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
  • The Art of Self Defense
  • Booksmart
  • Brittany Runs A Marathon
  • Dolemite Is My Name
  • The Farewell
  • Ford v Ferrari
  • Good Boys
  • Jojo Rabbit
  • Knives Out
  • The Lighthouse
  • Midsommar
  • Parasite
  • Ready Or Not
  • Rocketman
  • Us

I still have some Oscar Bait late-in-the-year or below-the-radar films that I would like to check out: Pain & Glory,  The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Monos, and Hagazussa. I’m iffy on The Irishman, as I have a hard time wanting to sit through anything that long, especially a gangster movie, as much as I like the (most of) the film’s cast and director. I thought Little Women was unwatchably bad, so I’m flying in the face of critical consensus on that. In theory, I will amend this to create my final list after I catch the ones I’m going to catch, though once the Academy Awards show rolls around, I usually lose interest in catching up, and start looking ahead to next year.

AND  THEN . . . .

. . . onward to New Mexico and beyond. I assume that I will be back here at my desk (wherever my desk lives at that point) in December 2020 with a similar report (as has become my habit), marveling at that which was, and eagerly anticipating that which is yet to come. See you then?